Missouri begins prosecuting under cyber bullying law

A 21-year-old woman accused of sending a vulgar text message to a 17-year-old girl is one of the first cases brought under a new Missouri state law against cyber bullying that was prompted by the suicide of a teenage girl after she received cruel online messages.

The 2006 death of 13-year-old Megan Meier prompted Missouri lawmakers to update the state’s harassment law earlier this year so that it now covers cyber bullying and stalking done through electronic media, such as eMail or text messages.

A handful of cases related to electronic communication have been filed statewide since the law took effect Aug. 28. Prosecutors do not track harassment cases based on the type of communication method used, so they could not provide an exact count in recent days of how many people have been charged because of the new provision.

In one of the new cases, 21-year-old Nicole Williams is accused of using electronic communications to harass a teenager in a dispute over a boy. Williams is scheduled for arraignment on one count of harassment on Jan. 8.

She allegedly sent the text message to the 17-year-old she had not previously met because she heard the girl had a physical encounter with her boyfriend. The two had just been talking, police said.

The 17-year-old girl received voice messages with lewd and threatening comments, including some that called her by the name "pork and beans" and threatened rape. Williams told police others sent those messages from her phone, according to a probable cause statement.

St. Peters, Mo., police spokeswoman Melissa Doss said the 17-year-old had eggs, thumbtacks, and a can of baked beans thrown on her car. Williams has not been linked with or charged with those offenses, she said.

The case was filed in November and is the first involving text messages in St. Charles County, the county where Megan Meier resided, since the new law went into effect.

Defense attorney Michael Kielty, who represents Williams, criticized the revised law on electronic harassment. He called the Meier case tragic, but said lawmakers had engaged in a knee-jerk reaction to try to address the high-profile case.

In a landmark cyber bullying trial, Lori Drew, 49, of O’Fallon, Mo., was convicted in Los Angeles last month on misdemeanor federal charges of accessing computers without authorization. (See "Cyber bullying case nets mixed verdict.")

Prosecutors said Drew and two others created a fictitious teenage boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to neighbor Megan Meier, 13. The "boy" dumped Megan in 2006, telling her: "The world would be a better place without you." Megan then hanged herself.

Drew has not yet been sentenced in that case.

The trial in California came after Missouri prosecutors said they couldn’t find state statutes that allowed them to file charges.

Kielty said Missouri’s revised harassment measures are bad law. "It’s probably one of the worst-written laws I’ve seen in my career," he said.

He said kids used to say things face to face or pass notes in school commenting on someone’s looks or weight. The new law "criminalizes behavior that otherwise wouldn’t be illegal except for the medium," he said.

"It’s not criminal. It might be mean-spirited, but it’s not criminal," he said.

St. Charles County Prosecutor Jack Banas noted that the allegations against Williams haven’t been proven yet, but he said the updated harassment law should help make it "easier to go after people who are going after people in unusual ways."

He said harassment over the telephone has been a crime for years in Missouri. The change to the law "broadens it to cover new technology," he said.

Banas said he’s not sure whether Missouri’s current harassment law as it relates to electronic communication would have allowed for prosecution of Drew, had it been in effect at the time of Megan Meier’s death. He thinks it would have been difficult to prove the case because of a lack of corroborating evidence. "The communications weren’t sent by Mrs. Drew, for one thing," he said. Drew wasn’t charged with harassment in the California case.

About 45 states have updated their laws to address harassment through electronic communications or crafted new laws to respond to the concerns of cyber bullying or stalking, said Naomi Goodno, an associate professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who has written about cyber-bullying law. She said many of those changes happened prior to the Megan Meier case or were fueled by other concerns.

Similar federal legislation has been proposed on Capitol Hill

State Sen. Scott Rupp, who sponsored the bill to change Missouri’s harassment law, said Missouri’s law hasn’t been fully tested, but he believes it is making people more aware of what they say online.

Online bloggers have written about Missouri’s new law or sent out links to it as a reference when derogatory comments are made on the internet, he said, adding: "That people are actually paying attention–it is a good thing."